Theme 7: Rules in video games

Part of:
The semiotics of Video Games

Text by Mathias Jansson

A key characteristic of a video game could be that it has rules. You have to follow certain rules to succeed in the game. The rules could be as simple as “hit the ball” in Pong, or as complex as in Civilization, where you build an empire from scratch. In his essay Interpretive Cooperation and Procedurality. A Dialogue between Semiotics and Procedural Criticism, Gabriele Ferri describes the cooperation between players and rules as follow: “Users’ cooperation with an interactive matrix generates a ludic discursive universe inside the TIAG (this-is-a-game) layer in which gaming interactions are acknowledged to be fictional. When the focalization is shifted inside it, users abide to TIAG interpretive rules and temporarily set aside encyclopaedic knowledge of the world – not being surprised, for example, by the height of Super Mario’s jumps.”

But what if the video game suddenly changes, mixes or breaks its own rules during the game play?  Well, if it would happened in the real world, we would call it anarchy. However, when it happens in fiction, we often call it art. If I could pick one very simple definition of art, it would be breaking the rules. The fundamental for all art is that it questions and experiments with the rules of reality. In that perspective you could regard the video game ROM CHECK FAILS (2008) by Farbs as an art piece. In ROM CHECK FAILS, classic arcade games such as Pac-Man, Tetris, and Super Mario are mashed-up, and the rules and scenarios change randomly, making the game nearly impossible to play. It is as if a virus has hit your hard drive and mixed up all your games into one, or perhaps I could say – an artist has hit your hard drive? The title refers to a type of system failure that happens when corrupted code is loaded into the computer’s memory. The rules of the ludic universe are constantly changing so the player cannot recognize the “this-is-a-game” layer any longer and needs to shift to a “this-must-be-art” mode instead.

ROM CHECK FAIl, Farbs, 2008

Garry’s mod (2004) by Garry Newman is another example of a video game that challenges the rules of the game genre. It is described as a sandbox game. Sandbox is a safe area on your computer where you can run and test new software without harming the computer. Garry’s mod has the interface of a First-Person Shooter, but instead of killing enemies and blowing buildings apart, you have the possibility to create your own objects and worlds. Instead of the deconstruction of worlds, which is the common rule of First Person Shooters games, you are constructing worlds. You become, in a sense, the creator – an artist that investigates and questions the rules of the video game, creating your own game universe.

Garry’s mod, Garry Newman, 2004

It would be too simplistic to conclude that if videogames have rules, those breaking rules should be called art. But next time you play a videogame, you could ask yourself: “Am I playing by the rules or against the rules?”

Next: What is a game world? Doors, keys and… good legs

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